Across the nation, sounds of protests and objections to the COVID-19 shutdown are beginning to get audible. As the rules drag on, they are causing job losses, bankruptcies and a feeling that people have no rights. Possibly the largest migration in the human history, where rural folks are returning from urban areas and Indians abroad are returning to their homeland is a deluge which no one saw coming. Let us not be so liberal as to call these protesters as fool-hardy or selfish, for they have science and the Constitution on their side.
It is neither common sense nor a sustainable situation to close down everything, close down the economy, and lock everyone in their houses. India has not shared demographic data of the dead or the infected or even those tested, but the international data show almost all the COVID-19 fatalities are among the elderly and those with serious health problems. Shutting stores and restaurants did not save them.
Unfortunately, social media companies are censoring any science that challenges the shutdown saying the platform’s policy is to ban content that “disputes the efficacy of local health authority recommended guidance.” YouTube also censors views at odds with the World Health Organization.
Shutting down schools and businesses was justified to “flatten the curve,” meaning buying time for hospitals to add beds and gather enough ventilators, masks and other medical equipment. The goal of the shutdown was not eradicating the virus. That is not possible. The virus will possibly last another 18 to 24 months, fading once most Indians have been exposed and have developed immunity.
When the shutdown was temporary and tied directly to hospital preparedness, and enforcing behaviour of responsibility and care, government had the right to protect itself against an epidemic using reasonable regulations using an archaic law – the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 – which no government bothered to review for the last 120 years. But shutdowns lose their reasonableness when they have no deadline or benchmark to meet and continue to get extended without any official rationale and justification in terms of the objectives of the state. Their vagueness tramples upon people’s rights and shows the government as being tentative in its approach and guided by myopic considerations on a day-by-day basis.
Uncertainty about reopening could convert the cities to wastelands of lifeless stores and shopping malls, abandoned commercial buildings, landlords defaulting on municipal taxes and soaring tax rates for the people still in the city. Consider this urban landscape – the upper class is into hiding in their cocoons, the lower class is on the reverse run, going back to their rural and semi-urban abodes from where they had migrated, but the middle class has nowhere to hide or nowhere to run back to?
It is time for India to lift its shutdown and strike a balance between keeping the virus at a level that will not overwhelm our hospital systems and allowing people to still try and earn a living. The word of caution however is that the clamping of lockdown was for a real objective, the unclamping too has to be for real objectives and not just to support any lobby or an ideology. Slow easing of restrictions since 20th April has shown little spikes in the ‘new cases’ and the relaxations should not let these small spikes turn into outbreaks.
Let us be very sure that the virus cannot be eradicated. The idea of having treatments or a vaccine available, to facilitate return to the ‘normal’ life before the pandemic would be something of distant possibility. Even at the top speed at which the researchers are going, no vaccine is likely to be administered to individuals in next few months. Testing is no panacea in mitigating the disease. When will everyone have a yes/no infection test? The answer depends on layers of uncertainty, decisions made by individual state governments, national and international businesses, small producers of test parts like swabs and chemical reagents, availability of personnel and facilities that ensure prevention of cross infection, congestion within processing labs, and legal chain of custody issues. A negative test result is only good until the moment of taking of sample. Such result does not show that the person could not get infected after the test.
India is by constitutional design and operational reality, not a big monolith, not the Soviet Union, not China, but a federal structure of 28 states, plus eight union territories. No central stockpile of perishable tests would have fit the virus or lasted long just as no central stockpile of hospital or quarantine beds can ensure most efficient service delivery. Each new case of infection comes a unique problem set, each problem set is different, which is why the right answer is allowing independent management of each problem case – with 24/7 central guidance and support, though interstate and intrastate coordination.
Some ministers, government officials and legislators, who get paid show no respect for working people who don’t get assured salaries but need to earn. Government officials should heed the concerns of the millions who want to get back to work. Shutting down won’t stop the virus, but it will destroy our rights and the nation we call our own. Let us not permit the feeble sounds of protests and objections to the COVID-19 shutdown escalate to deafening levels. Let us not look so tentative while unclamping the lockdown when we had looked so confident in clamping it.
This article was first published on 13 May 2020.
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